7.8 million. That’s the number of children being raised by family members who are not their birth parents.
2.6 million. That’s the number of grandparents who report that they are raising their grandchildren in a brand-new form of family structure. Because it’s so prevalent, this form of kinship care has its own name now. It’s called the grandfamily, a newly minted moniker born of necessity and created by a tragic crisis in this country—substance abuse and opioid addiction.
Maine resident and child advocate Bette Hoxie knows—and she puts her family first. Even as she strives, in her professional career, to work on behalf of grandfamilies nationwide.
Bette is the executive director of Adoptive & Foster Families of Maine and the Kinship Program, based in Orono, Maine. But she’s also a grandmother, raising her grandchildren. It’s her most treasured role. In her testimony to the U.S. Senate, she explained, “I am first and foremost a mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. I raised my grandson since his infancy. Today he is 17 years old, and he will graduate from high school in June. He plans to go into conservation law enforcement after college.”
In the United States today, children are increasingly being raised and even formally adopted by family members—most often, their grandparents. Grandfamilies are doing this to make sure that the children stay within their birth family and avoid the other alternative: the U.S. foster care system. Bette explains. “Like so many other states, Maine is severely affected by the opioid crisis that permeates our nation and its vulnerable families. More and more infants are being born to mothers who are using opioids while pregnant. These births are taking a toll on a population of caring people who would—if they could—simply love their grandchildren, spoil them, and send them home to be raised and nurtured by their parents. But for a growing number of families, this is no longer an option. Instead, the grandparents have become the primary caretakers.”
In terms of kinship care, it’s not just the grandparents who are stepping forward to raise the children of parents with substance abuse issues: These adults are aunts, uncles, grandparents, and other extended family members. But, grandparents are by far the most common. They play the key child-rearing role in the lives of 2.5 million children—that’s 3% of all U.S. children.
These grandparents are not just saving their own families: They are literally saving our country as well—saving us billions of dollars a year, that is. Generations United, a national nonprofit group, has estimated that grandparents and other relatives who are raising children informally save taxpayers $4 billion each year.
And yet, these grandparents struggle financially—and, often, silently. They struggle with their own health concerns, their own physical limitations, as they dip into retirement funds to ensure that their grandchildren are raised right. Some grandparents may not even know that resources and support are available to them.
So, what are we, as a country, doing to protect and support them—the grandparents?
Enter Senate Bill S. 1091, the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act. (The House version is H.R. 3015.) In March 2018, this bill passed the Senate and is now law.
Introduced in 2017 by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA), this legislation enables the creation of a federal task force to support grandparents raising their grandchildren—a parenting trend that has risen steeply as the opioid epidemic continues to sweep the country. According to the language in the bill, “The task force shall identify, promote, coordinate, and publicly disseminate information and resources to help grandparents or other relatives meet the needs of the children in their care and maintain their own health and emotional well-being.” The task force would end after 5 years.
Collins and Casey are both ranking members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, and Collins is the chair of that committee. Passage of this legislation enables the identification and dissemination of helpful resources and information to help grandparents and other family members “navigate the school system, plan for their families’ future, address mental health issues for themselves and their grandchildren, and build social and support networks,” said Collins.
The bill is strongly endorsed by Generations United, a leadership organization focused on supporting intergenerational families and that, in 2016, released the report, Raising the Children of the Opioid Epidemic: Solutions and Support for Grandfamilies. This report found that after years of decline, the numbers of children in foster care are increasing—what’s responsible for this trend? The opioid epidemic. Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, expressed her support for the efforts of Senators Collins and Casey sees this bill as a vital stepping stone to supporting grandparents raising their grandchildren—one that would “provide critical direction to better coordinate federal programs that support grandfamilies to help children thrive.”
Let’s take a look at what this bill is all about. Let’s track the life of this legislation from its early days to its present status as a recently passed law. Let’s hear what child and family advocates, legislators, and, yes, grandparents themselves have to say about the importance of this landmark legislation.
In March 2017, the bill passed the Senate Special Committee on Aging, of which Senator Collins is chair. Witnesses who attended the committee hearing and who gave testimony on the bill’s behalf included the following individuals:
Jaia Peterson Lent, Deputy Executive Director of Generations United
Megan L. Dolbin-MacNab, PhD, LMFT, Associate Professor, Department of Human Development, and Director, Marriage and Family Therapy Doctoral Program, Virginia Tech University
Bette Hoxie, Former Executive Director and Current Board Member, Adoptive & Foster Families of Maine and the Kinship Program
Sharon McDaniel, MPA, EdD, Founder, President, and CEO of A Second Chance, Inc.
At this hearing, the witnesses testified in support of the urgent need for grandparents to have easy access to information and resources currently available to assist them. The first to testify was Jaia Peterson Lent, of Generations United. “Today’s grandparents provide a continuum of care from part- or full-time child care to raising a grandchild due to the parent’s death, disability, addiction or military deployment. This testimony will focus on grandparents and other relatives raising children, also known as grandfamilies.”
Dr. Megan L. Dolbin-MacNab, of Virginia Tech University, said in her testimony, “We’ve all seen the tragic news stories about the impact of opioid addiction on families. This hearing highlights how the opioid crisis is forcing many grandparents to step in because parents can no longer provide care. These grandparents represent real safety nets for their grandchildren and families.”
Bette Hoxie’s testimony was not just professional but personal: Hoxie, child and family advocate for a Maine nonprofit and herself a grandparent raising her grandchildren, expressed the need for our country to recognize and support the challenges that today’s grandparents face. “Many of the grandparents raising grandchildren had planned to be retired. Others are younger and still raising children of their own in addition to their grandchildren. Trying to make small or fixed-incomes cover the costs of such things as diapers, and childcare are often insurmountable obstacles for the families who are giving their all to keep our nation’s children within their families of origin and above all else safe!”
Dr. Sharon McDaniel spoke on behalf of a nonprofit based in Pennsylvania—another state particularly hard-hit by the opioid epidemic: More than 100,000 children are currently in the long-term care of family members. Dr. McDaniel emphasized the power of hope and the value of family in her testimony: “Today, the opioid epidemic is bringing children into the system at earlier ages. Through crisis and heartbreak, however, families can still triumph. Families do not lose value in crisis. Thus, I am profoundly humbled and appreciative to be able to share with you a couple of stories that elevate this conversation from the pages of my notes to the imprinted visuals in your heads about the importance of grandfamilies and the children that they care for on a daily basis.”
On May 11, 2017, a joint press release was issued by the Special Committee on Aging, formally announcing the introduction of the bill). In the press release, both senators were quoted. Senator Collins said, “As the opioid epidemic expands, grandparents increasingly are being called on to become the primary caregivers of their grandchildren. Although this caretaker role can be beneficial for both the grandparents and the grandchildren, it also presents several challenges. Our legislation would spur a federal effort to identify, promote, coordinate and disseminate information, resources and best practices that assist grandparents who are raising grandchildren.” Senator Casey said, “The opioid crisis is not only straining families, communities, law enforcement and health care systems, but it is also presents new challenges for older Americans. As older Americans respond by stepping in to care for their grandchildren, this legislation is designed to say that you are not alone and that we have your back, with a focused federal effort to providing the information and supports grandparents need.”
On June 26, 2017, a letter of support was submitted to Senators Collins and Casey, signed by 38 nonprofits, social service providers, and organizations in the cross-disciplinary infant–family field. The signatories of this letter emphasized research findings showing the powerful, positive impact that kinship care has on children. “When children cannot remain with their parents, research shows living with grandparents or other relatives reduces trauma, increases stability, reinforces safety and well-being, helps keep brothers and sisters together, and honors family and cultural ties.”
The letter went on to highlight the downside of grandfamily care—the lack of support and resources that exist for these grandparents. “Yet, the grandparents and other relatives who step into this role face great challenges and do so at great personal sacrifice. Unlike parents or foster parents who plan for months or years to care for a child, grandparents and other relatives often step in to raise the children unexpectedly with little to no support. Suddenly they are forced to navigate complex systems to help meet the physical and cognitive health needs of children who come into their care, often after experiencing significant trauma.”
And, even though these grandparents wouldn’t have it any other way, the financial hardship that they face is a bitter reality, the letter explains. “Taking on the unexpected expense of a child can be especially devastating to caregivers living on fixed incomes. Countless grandparents report spending down their retirement savings to address the health, mental health, food and clothing needs of the children, or to pay legal expenses from seeking legal custody of the children.”
The letter concludes by explaining how this proposed legislation, if enacted, would directly help millions of children and grandfamilies. “The Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act would help these families by providing a one-stop public source of federal information on resources and best practices to help these grandparents and other relatives meet the diverse needs of the children in their care as well as maintain their own physical and mental health and emotional well-being. Furthermore, by creating a federal task force to issue a report to Congress on best practices, resources, and gaps in services, the legislation takes critical steps toward improving the availability and quality of services to help grandfamilies across the country.”
On March 22, 2018, the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act (S. 1091) officially passed the Senate. Senator Collins, in her press release, used the language, “celebrated the U.S. Senate’s passage of” to describe this historic legislative victory. It is, indeed, a cause for celebration—and a victory for grandfamilies in every corner of the United States. “Throughout history, grandparents have stepped in to provide safe and secure homes to their grandchildren, replacing traumatic pasts with loving and hopeful futures. As a result of the current opioid crisis, more and more grandparents are taking on this role. It is essential that we do all that we can to help these families. I am pleased that the [HELP] Committee unanimously passed our bipartisan legislation, which would help ensure that grandparents who have taken on this caretaker role have access to the resources they need.”
Senator Casey echoed Senator Collins’ enthusiasm. “I co-authored this bill to respond to the needs expressed by families throughout Pennsylvania and across the country who need our help to find resources and supports to raise their grandchildren. I urge my Senate colleagues to pass this legislation swiftly so that grandfamilies will know where to go to access the information they need.”
When the bill was passed, child and family advocates from tiny towns to big cities celebrated. The bill’s passage into law was publicized by small-town newspapers and big-name media outlets alike. Small towns like Erie (PA) and Buckley (WV). Media giants like the Associated Press. The passage of this important legislation was, indeed, cause for celebration.
And no one was more pleased than Bette Hoxie in Orono, Maine. “I believe this Task Force will lead to improved empathy and understanding of the joys and challenges of grandparents raising grandchildren. With a greater understanding will come improved services, supports and resources needed to do this important work.”
For more information on the rise in grandparent adoptions, see this article from Adoption.com:
1) These organizations included the following: Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine; Alliance for Strong Families and Communities; American Academy of Pediatrics; Arizona Grandparent Ambassadors; Association of Administrators of the Interstate Compact on Adoption and Medical Assistance; Catholic Social Services of Washtenaw – Grandparents as Parents Program; Child Care Aware of America; Child Welfare League of America; Children’s Defense Fund; Families and Children Together; Family Focused Treatment Association; Family Service Society of Yonkers; Fort Greene Strategic Neighborhood Action Partnership; Foster Kinship; FosterClub; Generations United; Grand Family Coalition, Inc.; GrandFamilies of America; Helping and Lending Outreach Support; iFoster; Jewish Federations of North America; Lutheran Services in America; National Association of Area Agencies on Aging; National Association for Children’s Behavioral Health; National Association of Counties; National Center on Adoption & Permanency; National Council on Aging; National Foster Parent Association; National Indian Child Welfare Association; National Kinship Alliance for Children; New York State Kinship Navigator; North American Council on Adoptable Children; Partners for Our Children; Project GRANDD; Voice for Adoption; WordGatherers Publishing LLC; Wyoming Kinship Advocacy; and ZERO TO THREE.